Advent 4 - Immanuel

Rev'd Sarah
Sunday, December 18, 2016 - 9:30am

Immanuel: God is with us - Sermon Advent 4: Mathew 1:18-end.

I wonder how many time management courses you’ve been on through your life so far? I’ve been on a fair few, not of my own choosing and usually arriving late as they always seem to fall on such inconveniently busy days! I always try to refrain from being the disruptive delegate, but I can never really agree with the basic premise often presented – that a well managed life revolves around learning the art of saying ‘no’.  Surely a life fully lived is all about learning how to say ‘yes’.

‘Yes’, to making room in our life for others, room in our life for God with us, for God within us. Yes to carrying the Christ-child in our hearts, enabling us to pour out that risky, courageous, self-giving, vulnerable love to others which changes us and changes the world. Basically, learning how to say ‘yes’ to playing our part in God’s breathtaking story of salvation. 

In Luke’s gospel, we learn how to say ‘yes’ from the young girl Mary. Mary’s ‘yes’ to God’s overwhelming call on her life, is simple and complete - ‘Be it unto me according to thy word’. Mary’s unquestioning willingness to play her part in God’s story, results in nothing less than the birth of Jesus in her life and in the life of all humanity.

Now poor Joseph doesn’t get much of a part even in the nativity narrative.  We have few insights into his character. He becomes a background, support figure in the drama. Certainly Joseph wasn’t highly favoured as children came to choose who to play in our live dress-up nativity stable here at the crib festival last weekend -Mary, magi, shepherds, donkeys, and even thunderbirds, all featured well ahead of Joseph 

But Matthew, in his gospel, lifts Joseph for a moment to centre stage, bringing to the fore the vital support role of love and protection for an other. Matthew’s gospel doesn’t really include much of a birth narrative a all, in fact, despite his big opening statement ’the birth of Jesus took place in this way’....   All is described rather briefly, as we have heard this morning. But we do learn from Matthew about Joseph’s ‘yes’.

We’re drawn into Joseph’s dilemma.  What to do in the face of seeming disaster and shame; torn in different directions whilst seeking to find the right path. How can Joseph show compassion to Mary whom he loves and save her from shame, yet remain righteous, in line with the expectations of upright society? Which path should he follow? 

It’s in a dream that Joseph’s angel, his revelation from God, appears showing him his part in God’s story. And in the snapshot moment when Joseph awakes, his response is one of utter trust in God’s sign – an immediate, courageous ‘yes’. He simply follows his dream, marries, protects and cherishes Mary, and in so doing steps into the story of the world’s salvation. It’s the path he thinks will lead to public shame and heartache, but it’s the call by God to be there for others in unconditional love, to forget himself and his needs.  Joseph’s ‘yes’ makes room for God’s action through Mary, makes room for the birth of Christ, creates the setting into which God is with us in defenseless, unimaginable love.

I don’t know whether any of you have also forgone the Christmas Panto trip this year in favour of the alternative Christmas 2016 outing – a trip to the National Gallery in London to see the Beyond Caravaggio exhibition. Caravaggio is one of the great masters of the snapshot moment, caught and frozen in time.  Capturing the most important moment in the story, the characters’ come to life vividly before our eyes in very real presence, yet they’re held on the canvas in suspended animation. The snapshot moment is given a living quality, pulling us the viewer into the timeless drama. And Caravaggio often paints himself into the scene. His presence in the drama lifts it off the canvas to be played out in the drama of real life. He puts him and us at the heart of the story whether we feel comfortable with that or not.  And lingering a few inches from the huge Caravaggio canvas of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus in Gethsemene, I certainly felt far from comfortable as I was drawn in to my part in God’s story.

We can visualize with Matthew today that snapshot moment suspended in time, when Joseph wakes from his dream and accepts his unique part in God’s story. Joseph’s ‘yes’ is the moment he becomes part of its meaning, adding to the intensification, the dramatic light which illumines the story of God’s gift to us – the gift of his very self in a helpless human baby. And we are drawn in to the same living drama as we ponder our ‘yes’, ponder our part in God’s wondrous story of salvation. 

And so as we hear again the Christmas readings again in our carol service this evening and through the coming days, take our final steps towards the manger, will we just be onlookers hearing or seeing a familiar tale unfold.  Or do we see ourselves painted vividly into those snapshot moments captured in our visual imagination as we hear again the wondrous story of Christ’s birth. Are we part of it’s meaning right here and now as we glimpse and nourish the wonder of God’s love in our hostile world.  Are we playing our part in God’s living story as we too carry the vulnerable Christ-child in our hearts; as we too kneel in wonder and awe beside the helpless baby who is God our savior.

Ours is a living faith, and daily we can make room for the new birth of the living Christ within us. Immanuel, God is with us, we can sing in our hearts together, as we follow the examples of Mary and Joseph and seek the courage to say ‘yes’ afresh to our part in God’s wondrous, transforming, life-giving story of love.